Africa today is seen in the eyes of many Westerners as a place of destitution and hopelessness. This view is partly true. In Africa, today the population’s majority is unemployed, resulting in the African youth resorting to irregular migration, seeking greener pastures in western nations. This has resulted in the death of many trying to cross the Sahara or the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, and demonstrates how frustrated citizens of Africa have become.
By natural resources, Africa is rich. But the continent is unable to harness these resources to benefit its population. For us to understand the current situation of hopelessness in Africa, we need to consult history. We need to understand how the continent was before European contact, as well as the activities of Europeans after the contact.
Before Europeans arrived in Africa, Africa demonstrated vibrant economic, social and political structures. However, these were severely disrupted by Europeans who wanted to create wealth for themselves. Historian Robin Walker testifies this. “How can anyone claim Africa did not have societies before the arrival of colonialism? Political, economic and social structures existed in African society well before the 19th century. Frederic Caillaurd, during his quest to discover the source of the Nile, marvelled at the structures of Egyptian society. Massive empires existed in Zimbabwe and Zululand (to name two) and were crushed by the land grab of the colonial empires in the 19th century.”
After the Europeans made contact with the people of the New World (Americas), they set about exterminating the natives and seizing their lands. These lands were then tuned into plantations to produce raw materials for European industries back home. Europeans who needed labor to produce the raw materials saw the solution as simple. Europeans turned to Africa, enslaving people to work in these plantations.
For over 500 years, the transatlantic slave trade flourished. This later became known as the Triangular Trade. Slaves were transported from Africa to the Americas. Slaves produced the raw materials for European industries. Raw materials were turned into finished goods in Europe and transported back to Africa for sale or in exchange for more slaves. Europeans liked the heinous trade. Playing on the ignorance of many African chiefs and leaders during the period, the Europeans helped Africans to capture each other, only to be exchanged for common sugar or gunpowder.
This trade saw the forced removal of millions of Africans from their country. This number included a large percentage of skilled tradesmen and women from a range of occupations and professions, who were making their contribution to the various African societies. Without them, African societies themselves were weakened. Over 12 million strong Africans were sent across the Atlantic to continue their lives as slaves. The slave trade undermined the economy of Africa; slave raiding and kidnapping made it unsafe to mine the land or to travel with gold. The Europeans’ demand for slaves made raiding for captives more profitable than gold mining, for example, and the slave trade also encouraged Africans to wage war against one another, conducting raids instead of building more peaceful relations.
The Guyanese Marxist historian, Walter Rodney sums up this barbarity. “Most important of all (given that warfare was the principal means of obtaining captives) it is necessary to make some estimate of the number of people killed and injured so as to extract the millions who were taken alive and sound. The resultant figure would be many times the millions landed alive outside of Africa, and it is that figure which represents the number of Africans directly removed from the population and labor force of Africa because of the establishment of slave production by Europeans.”
The exploitation didn’t end with the end of the slave trade. Between the period of 1884-85, Europeans met in Berlin to discuss the division of the African continent among themselves. Through this division, they controlled Africa and its wealth. Europeans used brutal massacres as well as treachery, including the bribing of African chiefs to turn their people against each other.
Having secured the colonies, Europeans began looting African resources with impunity. Timber, gold, bauxite and diamonds, among other resources, were shipped to European cities. In fact, nobody can estimate the amount of resources looted by Europeans during this period.
Europeans deliberately killed the African initiative towards technology. The education system was structured then, in such a way that mathematics, science, engineering and technology were excluded. Europeans did this to prevent Africans gaining the knowledge to make their own manufactured goods.
However, by this time, some Africans had traveled to the West and gained some level of education and enlightenment. When these educated Africans returned home, they saw clearly everything that was wrong with what the Europeans were doing. By the end of the Second World War, the struggle for African independence began. It was bloody and difficult – the Europeans never wanted to leave the land they were exploiting.
But at last, independence did come, starting with the then Gold Coast (now Ghana) in 1957. By the 1960s many nations in Africa followed suit, gaining their independence.
However, Europeans still exerted a huge amount of influence on how African countries were managed. Their natural resources were still mainly owned and managed by European investors with much of the African land still owned by Europeans. Europeans were still the main buyers of African crops and minerals. By this time also, the new superpower, the United States of America, started interfering in the African political arena. Led by the Central Intelligence Agency, the United States sponsored many coups that installed puppet regimes that worked only in the interests of the United States. This gave corporations in the United States the opportunity to also loot their share of Africa’s wealth. Africans had to cope with these unbearable issues, as well as the many European legacies of controlling presence in Africa.
Today, African countries have a weak Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Their exports are mainly that of primary agricultural products. Industries are virtually nonexistent, and they have massive national debts to wealthier countries. To make matters worse, the gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow.
To end, we cannot say all African problems faced today were brought on by Europeans or Westerners. Of course, African governments themselves are not doing enough to help their people. Corruption and mismanagement among others, is evident in many African governments. But of course, we cannot overlook the negative role that the Europeans or Westerners played in making Africa what it is today. Africa today, is certainly a deformed image of Europe.
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